atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#2057: Flashforward (novel) view from the refrigerator.

The book was written in 1999 and the first 60% takes place in 2009. SF writers almost never predict the future correctly and Robert Sawyer is no different; the story is entertaining but the details are wrong. (He made the best guesses he could, of course; I'm not blaming him for being wrong.)

Little things: like people using tablet computers a lot. We've got 'em, but the iPad is the first real mainstream tablet computer and it's not even really a computer so much as it's an information appliance. (C'mon: its OS comes from a cell phone.)

Somehow he got the name of the sitting Pope in 2009 correct. There was a prophesy by someone who listed the names of the popes for a certain period up to and including the last pope, and Benedict XVI is one of them; that might be where Sawyer got the name. (Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.)

The story suffers a bit from some childish optimism.


Lloyd Simcoe wants to repeat the experiment to see if the flashforward can be repeated, and has only a little trouble convincing the UN to approve it.

I sincerely doubt convincing the world to allow the repeat of an experiment which inadvertently killed millions would be all that easy. Besides, on the day of the repeat, the entire world takes a vacation day in order to prevent deaths and injuries like the ones which occurred during the first flashforward. The economic consequences of that would be staggering.


The latter 40% of the book take place in 2030, and Sawyer makes a point of describing how people have to wear hats and sunglasses because of "ozone depletion". I'm afraid this is just utterly, totally, unforgivably wrong.

Forget the fact that the ozone hole over the Antarctic was discovered in 1956 and that it closes every year, and that the magnitude of the thinning has not changed materially in 54 years. The fact is, the ozone layer only provides some additional protection from the sun's UV, and if it all suddenly disappeared today there would be no net increase in any of the maladies associated with UV exposure, not today, not next year, not next decade, and not in 2030.

The atmosphere absorbs most of the UV radiation even without the ozone layer; and the UV that's missed by the atmosphere itself can't be stopped by the ozone layer either.

The atmosphere is only 100 miles thick (not even that, really) and nearly all of it lies below 30,000 feet, yet it's enough to shield us from the worst of the sun's radiation. I mean everything: alphas, betas, gammas, neutrons, protons, UV, x-rays, you name it. If both the ozone layer and the Earth's magnetic field were to disappear right now there would not be a significant rise in any radiation-related maladies; a hundred miles of air makes for a good radiation shield all by itself.

Okay, but ignore all that. How does ozone form?

That's not a flippant question. I mean, the ozone in the upper atmosphere must come from somewhere; ozone is not a stable molecule anyway (it's O3, three oxygen atoms) and it comes apart fairly easily.

Take some hydrogen peroxide and pour it into a metal container. See the bubbles? Hydrogen peroxide is H2O2, and it's not very stable because there are too many electrons in the molecule. Water (H2O) is much more stable. Give H2O2 something to run into (metals work great) and it comes apart. This reaction is energetic enough that pure hydrogen peroxide can be used as a rocket monopropellant.

Ozone is the same kind of molecule, though its disassociation is considerably less energetic. The ozone in the upper atmosphere right now is not the ozone which existed yesterday, or the day before. Oxygen atoms are constantly being slammed together to form ozone, and ozone molecues are constantly coming apart. The result is a certain concentration of the stuff at a certain altitude, which we call "the ozone layer".

The concentration is typically around 350 Dobson units. Dobson is the guy who designed the instrument (in the 1950s) which detected the "thickness" of the ozone layer. It does not materially change, except around the south pole in austral spring, when it dips to about 120 D.U. It then recovers to the normal value as austral spring continues.


Well: it turns out that by absorbing ultraviolet light, oxygen molecules obtain a high enough energy that they can form ozone. The oxygen molecule which absorbs a particular UV photon becomes so highly ionized that it breaks apart, and the individual oxygen atoms can grab onto anything--even an oxygen molecule--and stick. They're missing electrons, you see--more than a non-ionized oxygen atom, in its ground state--and they want full electron shells just like all other atoms do. The extra missing electron or two means it can join up with two oxygen atoms which are already sharing electrons and have full shells. The three oxygen atoms combined have enough electrons to have full electron shells.

...they're not happy, because when it comes to oxygen molecules three is a crowd. But they stick together for a while...until another UV photon comes along. Or something else, like an atom of chlorine, or something else which wouldn't mind picking up an oxygen atom.

And then the ozone molecule comes apart: an oxygen molecule (O2) goes one way and the extra oxygen atom goes another, either into another molecule or into the air as a free oxygen radical, available to join up with whatever comes along first. (Oxygen is a ho.)

This is happening all the time. It happens in the stratosphere because that's the first place there's enough oxygen for UV photons to be reliably captured.

That's right: ultraviolet light makes ozone.

The ozone "hole" is a meteorological phenomenon and it's one which has not materially changed in the 54 years we've been able to observe it. We have no idea how long it existed before 1956, which was when it was first observed, but the magnitude of the "hole" that year was approximately the same as the most recent measurements--and the "record" ozone hole was within 10% of the "typical" ozone hole.

Sawyer's bit about ozone depletion was FAIL, because he wrote that bit based on the scaremongering of eco-nazis, not real meteorology.

* * *

Despite the stupid lefty editorializing--I got sick of the polemics about socialized medicine--it was a pretty good book. But that's why Sawyer has so many awards: he writes lefty, and science be damned. The eco-nazis say there's an ozone hole, then by God there's an ozone hole in the future!

I'm surprised he didn't talk about global warming in the damn thing. Then again, in 1999 the "OMGWTF GLOBAL WARMING=MAN-MADE=APOCALYPSE!" thing was just getting started.


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